Workshop Submission #7

Today’s workshop comes from Beth. Here’s what she had to say about her submission:

Wondering if it is too vague? Also transitions to new paragraphs seem rough? Blurts of information then off to another idea… too many thought streams without fully delving into the ideas presented?

And here’s the material! Once again, I’ll put the submission without commentary first, then post it again with comments.

***

I never expected my twin sister Lily to become my arch nemesis. The spring we were forced to move into my late Great Uncle’s abandoned estate, our roles shifted. Not just Lily’s. Mother’s did. Divinia’s. Father’s. Zeda’s. All but mine. Lilia Cotton was a born princess and Uncle Red’s estate would prove it.

The forest seemed to beckon me, that first trip up the winding gravel drive to our new residence. The wind blowing limbs towards me and the back skyward, like a hand saying come here, come closer.

Mother saw it too, and heard me dreaming up adventures.

“You never go into the forest alone.”

“None of you,” she added post-script, making sure all four of us girls were listening. The leash was for me, she dangled the handle so my sisters would know to grab hold if I tried to run free. It was understood that I would try, I couldn’t help it. Divinia, the eldest masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities and foiled me every time, keeping us at constant odds with each other.

When Mother was the age I am now she was just like me. That’s why she says we bicker like we do, we’re too much alike, but I just think that’s what Mothers and daughters do. If she ever was like me, something killed that part of her.

Trips to Uncle Red’s were regular for her, revolving around school breaks, weekends, time-off. Her uncle was alive back then, and the house, once full of life was now scattered with bones, a skeleton itself, anything good having long decayed.

***

I never expected my twin sister Lily to become my arch nemesis. The spring we were forced to move into my late Great Uncle’s abandoned estate, our roles shifted. Not just Lily’s. Mother’s did. Divinia’s. Father’s. Zeda’s. All but mine. Lilia Cotton was a born princess and Uncle Red’s estate would prove it.

There’s a lot of telling here. I’d much rather SEE how these twins became enemies (and I’m not quite sure what KIND of enemies. Are they psychologically cruel to each other in a realistic sense or will one of them be wearing a mask and a cape?) than being told about it. That takes the impact of this shift in relationship away. “Our roles shifted” is dry. Then we’re introduced to a lot of people and it’s disorienting. Again, the focus in this paragraph, the first one your reader sees, isn’t on the main character but the sister. That’s fine, but that establishes some distance from the main character right off the bat.

The forest seemed to beckon me, that first trip up the winding gravel drive to our new residence. The wind blowing limbs towards me and the back skyward, like a hand saying come here, come closer.

Mother saw it too, and heard me dreaming up adventures.

Reverse the order of the first sentence so we know we’re driving and where we’re driving to before we see the forest, otherwise we’re disoriented. I don’t know if I’m reading something wrong but I have no idea what “The wind blowing limbs toward me and the back skyward” means… “And THEN back skyward”? Typo? Also, I don’t know how someone can “hear” someone’s thoughts. Maybe another verb here. Good characterization of the mother/daughter relationship, though.

“You never go into the forest alone.”

“None of you,” she added post-script, making sure all four of us girls were listening. The leash was for me, she dangled the handle so my sisters would know to grab hold if I tried to run free. It was understood that I would try, I couldn’t help it. Divinia, the eldest masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities and foiled me every time, keeping us at constant odds with each other.

Lots of info here. I’m not really sure that the leash sentence is the clearest. “Masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities” is a little bit of elevated diction and caught the eye as not fitting in. Again, “keeping us at constant odds with each other” is telling. We don’t see it in their relationship yet, we’re just told about it. You could try and convey this with dialogue.

When Mother was the age I am now she was just like me. That’s why she says we bicker like we do, we’re too much alike, but I just think that’s what Mothers and daughters do. If she ever was like me, something killed that part of her.

Good tension of “something killed that part of her,” I hope we see this element at play again, but it’s also telling. What we do get pretty clearly so far is what “like me” means and the beckoning of the forest, so that’s good, but we’re not getting a lot of sense of the character, other than her curiosity and how alone she feels within her family sometimes. More thoughts, feelings, physical experience could really put us closer into her head. The transition between Divinia in the last paragraph and Mother in this one is the most jarring yet, so smooth it out a bit. Also, a nitpick: “Mother” is capitalized when used like a proper noun, ie: “Mother called me in to dinner.” When it is used as a noun, it is lowercase, ie: “My mother called me in to dinner.” or “That’s what mothers and daughters do.” I see this little error A LOT A LOT A LOT.

Trips to Uncle Red’s were regular for her, revolving around school breaks, weekends, time-off. Her uncle was alive back then, and the house, once full of life was now scattered with bones, a skeleton itself, anything good having long decayed.

This is a little bit all-over-the-place. I’d rather move the story forward in the present moment than hear about mom’s childhood at Uncle Red’s. And, again, this is telling. When you TELL us about danger and misery, the stakes are lower than when you show it to us. This is good writing, technically, but it feels like the tension you’re creating here is forced. Show us images that let us see the tragedy for ourselves. A happy family portrait hung in cobwebs, a frayed tear cutting the canvas in half. Dry vines snaking across a child’s playroom. Whatever. Let us make up our own minds, through what images you give us, that something is wrong here. If we just hear about it in such a distant, summarizing style, it won’t impact us as much. I hope the story actually starts and they get to the house soon.

***

I hope this workshop was useful for you. I think there’s some good, atmospheric writing here, but I’m curious to see what you all think about the tension and distance and summary we’re given.

When running a workshop in person or online, you always get a feel for the group and how they interact with each other. Sometimes there are problems. Other times, the workshop is fruitful and helpful and kind. I have to say that you all have impressed me so much. Not only does the writer get comments from me in the entry, but each submission has garnered over 20 comments from readers that provide additional perspective, questions, advice and support.

This has been working out better than I could’ve hoped! Thank you all for that.

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  1. Olleymae’s avatar

    Wow, Beth! You’ve hooked my interest in your story. I loved the image of the leash, and the tension between mother and daughter. The mom knows what it feels like to wish for escape and that’s the reason for the tension, not a snotty teenager going, “poor me, my mom doesn’t understand.”

    I wish I could read the whole story and explore this creepy house and forest. I didn’t see the genre stated anywhere, but I hope this is a fantasy with a crazy history and a twisted, powerful family.

    Mary, thanks so much for explaining the ways she could “show, not tell” — writers hear that phrase so often, but don’t always get concrete examples of how to do it. Your idea about the photograph and the vines illustrating the state of the house and the family is genius.

  2. Mary K.’s avatar

    Thank you Beth for sharing this. I know showing not telling, for me, is a huge problem for me. It’s a simple concept but I get so confused about it. I learn by analyzing examples. Thank you Mary for helping me see the difference. Are there any books with sentences written in a telling format and then rewritten in a showing format? I need all the help I can get.

    Thank you to all the entrants for sharing our manuscript beginnings. Thank you Mary for sharing your advice.

  3. KellieD’s avatar

    I think a Show and Tell workshop could be instructive, because I agree with Mary K., it is a challenge that all writers share. Maybe we get a line or a paragraph that is all telling and then we all come back to share our various approaches for showing. . . just a thought.

    I’ve been lurking during these workshop sessions, but agree that they’ve been so insightful and thoughtful. I am just starting to dabble in the MG/YA genre, so this has really given me food for thought! Thanks to Mary, the contributors, and the commenters!

  4. write-brained’s avatar

    Beth, I have to tell you your story has me intrigued! So imagine how much more intriguing it will be with some tightening and clean-up! Good stuff, Mary!

  5. Krista V.’s avatar

    Piggy-backing off of Mary’s show-don’t-tell comments, you might try jumping right into a scene – when they first arrive at the house, for instance – and letting all of these small details come out within the action and dialogue. If you don’t like how it turns out, you can always scrap it, but at the very least, it should give you a few new ideas to work with.

    Thanks for sharing this excerpt with us, Beth. Good luck with it!

  6. Bane’s avatar

    In some ways, I think there was a bit too much writing inserted into the storytelling, but I like the opening 2 lines a lot (the rest of the paragraph could be condensed, or even cut, IMO) — perhaps it’s telling, but it’s also a bit of stage-setting, which I like, though I can see how the following paragraphs might be decorating the stage a bit too much. Thanks, Beth, and thanks again, Mary.

  7. Shari Maser’s avatar

    Beth — Thanks for sharing. You have already hooked me, so I can only imagine how powerful your novel beginning will be once you add more “showing” details.

    I especially enjoyed the following lines:

    “The leash was for me, she dangled the handle so my sisters would know to grab hold if I tried to run free.”

    “If she ever was like me, something killed that part of her.”

    Like Bane, I liked the first paragraph even though it was quite narrative. I wondered, though, how everyone else’s roles could shift without the narrator’s role shifting too.

    Anyway, I’m intrigued by the characters and their relationships, and would love to find out what happens next.

    Mary — thanks for doing the workshop. It has given us all lots of food for thought.

  8. Sarah’s avatar

    I loved the atmosphere of this introduction- wind blown forest and all! It reminded me of the beginning of Rebecca.

    However, I had a hard time not getting lost. I think the switches in time were the most difficult for me to follow.

    The first paragraph is general. When they’re going up the drive is a specific time, but then I couldn’t tell if the part when the mother tells her not to wander off is in that same scene or a different one. And then the next two paragraphs deal with a nebulous present, and then her mother’s past. It was difficult to figure out where I was entering the story.

    I perked up at her mother hearing her thoughts and the leash. Since this is the beginning of the story, I don’t know whether her mother can hear her thoughts or not. Maybe it’s that kind of book. And I wanted to know if there was really a leash? (That’s intriguing!) I felt a bit lost because the test raised those questions and then didn’t answer them. And since the answers would tell me so much about the world I’m entering, I felt disoriented.

    Beth, thank you so much for submitting this! Despite all the comments, I did enjoy reading it. Good luck as you continue to work on this.

  9. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    There’s something about your voice I like, and I can’t put my finger on it. But…like Mary, I felt there were a lot of things going on, and I needed to visualize better.

    Maybe some of things you see/feel/hear in your head are not making it to the page? (I do that all the time.)

    This is a great start!

  10. Marybk’s avatar

    I believe this is going to be a great story. Beth, you’ve used imagery sprikled throughout this piece that’d keep me reading. I think it adds to the voice of your MC. Thanks for sharing this.

    And muchos gracias to Mary for the workshops!

  11. janet’s avatar

    You could also start in the car with a scene that demonstrates the tension between the two sisters.
    I think this story has lots of potential. You just need to add some action, instead of being constantly in the character’s head.

  12. Bongo’s avatar

    Mary, Bongo couldn’t agree with your comments more. Too much telling and too much name dropping. If Bongo wants a lot of names he will read Chekhov. Note: Bongo does not want to read Chekhov. Bongo reads YA so his head will not hurt. Also Bongo is a bit emotionally immature.

    Bongo is also curious. Did any of the contest winners manuscripts look any good after the first 500 words or less–or did they all suffer from letdowns? You had mentioned in one of your blogs about people work shopping their beginnings but not paying attention to the rest. Was this so?

  13. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Beth, thanks for sharing! I felt immediately like I wanted to know more and read on. There’s a certain darkness to what you’ve written that’s really intriguing.

    One thing that stopped me but seems to have bothered no one else is Lily and Lilia – presumably these names both refer to the MC’s sister (in the first paragraph). I would prefer it if just one name was used.

    I also felt some of the language was a bit stiff/old –
    she added post-script,
    It was understood that I would try,
    Divinia, the eldest masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities and foiled me every time, keeping us at constant odds with each other.

    A wise person recently told me that although it’s fine to use more complex vocab further into the book, it’s a good idea to try and make the first page easily accessible for the reader. I’m not sure which age group you’re aiming for, but it might be an idea to simplify the language on the first few paras to allow the reader to get into the story really easily.

    I hope I’m right on that… if I’m not, feel free to cut me down, Mary! (And thank you, thank you, for doing these workshops.)

  14. Cat Woods’s avatar

    Beth, nice job. Thanks for throwing in your first words for us to learn from. It has been highly instructive. I think SDT is a fight we all submit to at one time or another. The good news is that it is a relatively easy fix. The better news is your intro has great voice, IMO. I was hooked by the MC’s personality. She sounds free, curious and a little capricious. Fun and perfect for getting into trouble in such a spooky setting.

    I love, love, loved this line from your intro:

    “If she was ever like me, something killed that part of her.” Beautiful, haunting and informative in so few words.

    Also, I liked the strength of your second sentence and felt drawn to it more than the first one. A tweak to combine the two might give it a little more ooomph. Good luck and I hope to read this someday from an endcap!

    Mary, again, thanks for your willingness to teach us this hands on lesson. You have earned a place in agenting heaven.

  15. Liesl’s avatar

    Thanks for sharing Beth. All of the information could be relevant to your story, but it feels like you combined five random paragraphs that have no connective thread. I think you already knew that.

    One of the hardest parts of the art and craft of story-telling is learning when to say what. Exposition. (Blech.) We often know the information we must reveal, but when do we reveal it, and how? Do we show or tell? (I know we always sing “Show, don’t tell,” but every writer tells; the good ones just know when it’s warranted.)

    The hard truth is, no one can tell you what you should write, what comes next, and how you should reveal it. And if they do tell you, don’t listen to them. It’s YOUR story. Makes sure it stays that way. This is something that can only be learned by reading a ton and writing a ton and learning to trust your instincts. You can do it!

    My latest post on show vs. tell. I would LOVE a workshop from Mary on the subject.

    http://writerropes.blogspot.com/2010/03/contradictions-part-1-show-dont-tell.html

  16. Joseph Miller’s avatar

    Beth,

    Thanks for sharing your beginning. I also liked the image of the leash… it’s very evocative and you might even consider moving it as close to the opening as possible b/c its bound to hook your readers.

    Mary,

    Thanks again for your comments. They are very helpful in understanding how to read a story with an agent/editor’s eyes.

    Best Wishes,
    Joseph

  17. Susan James’s avatar

    Beth, I really like where I think this story is going-mother daughter conflict, sister conflict all wrapped up in an atmospheric tale of forest and wind. I want to read this!

    However, it was a lot all at once. I loved the line of what Mary called elevated diction; it sounded like a Jane Austen novel to me. I had an image of this being 19 century but then came “school breaks.” I got confused. The voice in that phrase seemed modern. There’s nothing wrong with the novel having either voice, but whichever voice you choose, stick with it when being the narrator. Maybe that eldest sister will have an “elevated” way of speaking but lets see that in her dialogue.

    One other thing: the twin sis is called Lily and then comes a list of names including Lilia Cotton. I’m guessing that’s the sis’ real name; but I did have to pause and a YA reader may not make the leap.

  18. KellieD’s avatar

    Was just going back through Mary’s old posts and came across this one from December 2009 on Show, Don’t Tell. Thought it would be useful to review:

    http://kidlit.com/2009/12/18/what-show-dont-tell-really-means/

  19. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Hello Beth,

    You are doing a great job of showing of what is happening from the beginning, I struggle with that, great job. I also like the idea of twin sisters becoming arch nemesis’s. Keep going, Mary did a lot of positive comments on yours as well! You lucky duck, that means you’ve got something here. Best of luck!

  20. Jess Tudor’s avatar

    I’ll be honest, I stopped at the first line. Here’s why: I AM an identical twin. It’s ridiculously natural for us to hate each other just as strongly – often MORE strongly – than like each other. So the narrator’s apparent surprise at this possibility made my jaw drop in disbelief. Even the twins I’ve known who ARE best friends understand the potential because they’re so alike.

    Granted, I wouldn’t consider my twin my arch-nemesis – mostly we ignore each other rather than bother fighting now that we’re old enough to do so – so maybe it was the wording that got me, the telling. I think I agree with Mary’s assessment that this would be better shown.

    Good luck!

  21. Beth’s avatar

    Thank you Mary, and Readers for all your comments. When I found out my work would be used, I was excited and terrified. I was pacing back and forth across my house with one of those nervous giggles escaping every few breaths. I finally got up the nerve to read it, and the terror dissolved. Only excitement remaining. Wonderfully helpful suggestions. What a blessing to get the opportunity to have a professional look at my work with a scrutinizing eye. And I deeply appreciated Mary’s blunt request to all of us, to be nice. She really was dead-on about how nerve-wracking this is for the writer (of course I speak for myself, but I’m sure I’m not alone), so I really appreciate the words of encouragement, the positive comments and the constructive criticisms. I feel like I just won a tropical vacation or something!! Thank you! Thank you!

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